- The Washington Times - Friday, March 26, 2010

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) | Linda Fillinger had a new experience recently: She made pancakes without reaching for a box of prepared mix.

“I never made it with actual flour before,” the Barboursville resident said after finishing a weekly cooking lesson at Huntington’s Kitchen. The newly established downtown facility is the most visible sign of the changes here since a celebrity chef came to what his American TV network calls the nation’s unhealthiest city.

“Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” a reality series about the British chef’s effort last fall to teach this Ohio River town about healthy eating, has its official premiere Friday.

Even before the evangelist for fresh ingredients and unprocessed foods set foot in town, residents were wary of being subjected to a gawk-and-go treatment that would unfairly single them out in a country where bulging waistlines and junk food diets are common from New York to California.

Instead of closing their eyes and wishing Mr. Oliver would go away, though, many people here eventually warmed to the chef, and have started efforts to improve the health of locals residents.

“This isn’t just a TV show and it’s not just a one-time thing,” said Doug Sheils, spokesman for Cabell Huntington Hospital, which was an early supporter of efforts to change the area’s health problems.

Mr. Sheils was an early and vocal skeptic of Mr. Oliver’s effort, and is still seething about a 2008 Associated Press story that used federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data to dub the five-county Huntington metropolitan area the country’s unhealthiest.

The story pointed out that based on CDC statistics, nearly half the adults in the metropolitan area were obese and that the area led in a half-dozen other illness measures, too, including heart disease and diabetes.

But after meeting Mr. Oliver, Mr. Sheils became convinced of the Cockney chef’s good will, and the hospital has stepped forward with significant donations to two major efforts.

The first is an $80,000 grant to revamp the menus at Cabell County’s 28 schools to eliminate processed foods and to serve meals made from fresh, local ingredients.

“The biggest part of that is money to train every single school cook in Cabell County how to cook healthy meals from scratch, so they’re not just opening a box of frozen chicken nuggets and warming them up,” Mr. Sheils said.

Consultants from Connecticut-based Sustainable Food Systems have already conducted weeklong training sessions in about a dozen schools, Mr. Sheils said.

The hospital also has donated $50,000 to help Ebenezer Medical Outreach, a local medical clinic, run Huntington’s Kitchen, where Mrs. Fillinger and other pupils were learning to make pancakes with real flour.

In some ways, despite the talk of revolution and the celebrity endorsement, it’s really a matter of discovering old-fashioned cooking, Mrs. Fillinger said.

Whether this will all be sustained is the important question. Huntington’s Kitchen has a year’s worth of donated food and the grant from Cabell Huntington Hospital, which Mr. Sheils said is essentially a year of rent and utility payments.

After that, the kitchen will need new grants, and more people paying the $10 weekly suggested donation for classes than are currently doing so.

And state officials have already raised doubts about whether Cabell County’s experiment in healthy new menus can be replicated across West Virginia’s 55 counties. First lady Gayle Manchin, a member of the state Board of Education, said at a meeting this month that Cabell schools will have to spend an extra $66,000 next year to keep the program running.

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